Today, we're going to visit the British Museum. There are no accessible Tube stations in that area. I'm sure we can find an accessible bus route there but today I pop for a taxi. It costs £11 as opposed to the £3 a bus ride would have cost but it was more comfortable and faster. Incidentally, it is extremely easy to find an accessible cab in London. Since 1986, it's been mandatory that all new cabs are accessible. A few older cabs are still on the road, but newer accessible cabs abound. Just flag one down, no need to call ahead or pay extra. There's plenty of head room, wide doors, and ramps.
We get there about 45 minutes before the museum opens so we have a decent breakfast at a café across the street.
There is an accessible entrance on the opposite end of the building from the main entrance. You will find a lift there to take you to any floor of the museum. Admission is free for everybody…one of England's biggest bargains.
In the middle is a great rotunda…the Great Court…a bright space with a reading room, snack bar, and several gift shops. From this central location, you can visit many galleries to each side.
We visit the Greek wing and see a reconstructed temple and the famous Elgin Marbles. These are the statues that would adorn the Parthenon in Athens except that the British got 'em, took 'em home, and put 'em on display here. They are stunning. There is also the controversy because Greece wants them back while the British say they are more capable of preserving them.
Upstairs in the Egypt wing, we see many mummies. Below, on the ground floor, we get a close-up view of the Rosetta Stone - the historic find that was the key to unlocking the Egyptian hieroglyphics.
After leaving the museum, it's a walk through Soho and the West End doing a little souvenir shopping along the way before ending up in Piccadilly Circus. Called the Times Square of London - with it's bright, flashing, animated billboards - the comparison is apt.
About two blocks away is Leicester Square where we have coffe and ice cream overlooking the pretty area.
After this light lunch or snack, we head over to Her Majesty's Theatre and take in the matinee of Phantom of the Opera. Wheelchairs sit 19 rows back from the stage and pay £21.00. One carer can get in at the same price and everybody else pays the full fare of £45.00. Upon arrival, a member of the staff will escort you to the accessible entrance around the corner. There is also a large accessible bathroom near the seats.
The play was great and the staff at the theatre was very helpful. We had seen this play in Los Angeles several years ago…although this was Tim's first time…and noted that the London production included a few more scenes that weren't in the L.A. edition.
After the play, we went to a nearby Tex-Mex restaurant called the Texas Embassy and had dinner. Tim decided to take advantage of English beer laws by ordering a Corona with his meal. In English restaurants (not bars or pubs), the age for drinking beer is 16 when accompanied by parents. Tim
The alarm went off at 4:45 this morning. This wasn't a mistake but it sure seemed like it at the time. No, we'd planned this because we had a 6:30 train to catch. Over at Waterloo station, we boarded the Eurostar to make the two and a half hour journey under the English channel over to Paris. This would be the first of our two day trips out of London.
The staff at the Eurostar station were efficient if a bit snippy at this early hour. A ramp was
employed to get the wheelchair on the train. Here's another perk of using a wheelchair: Wheelchairs can only fit in the First Class car. So, for an economy fare of £104 round trip, you can ride in the lap of luxury while attendants bring you meals and drinks to your seat. One companion can ride for the same price. Any more than that pays full fare. A non-refundable, non-exchangeable, 21-day advance purchase round-trip First Class fare runs £165 and goes up from there (you can also ride in economy for about half that and meet up with your party at the terminus).
After leaving London, the train gets up to its 186 mph cruising speed and the scenery starts to whiz by. This morning, there is a heavy fog and not much to see as we enter the tunnel. Twenty minutes and 31 miles later, we emerge and are still in fog.
The fog lifts before we hit Paris but the outskirts could use a heavy veil to hide them. A shanty town, piles of trash, and more graffiti than I've seen in New York or Los Angeles combined greet us as we roll into the station. It's not what I expected to see but thankfully it only gets better.
From the Gare du Nord station in Paris, we want to take the RER to the Chatalet station. Getting to the train is no problem, there is a lift from the main hall down to the platform. Buying tickets with a credit card, for me anyway, proves to be quite a challenge.
I do not have the necessary coinage to buy the tickets from the machine. Even though it says it will take a Visa card, when I try to use it an error comes up saying it will only take American Express, Diner's Club, or Carte Blanche. I go to the ticket window and try to buy the tickets, but my Visa won't work. For some reason, although it worked fine in England and the U.S., my Visa card just won't work anywhere in France…as we were to find out later. I pay with paper currency at the window and get our tickets. Luckily, the woman at the booth spoke just enough English and I could get out just enough French that we were able to complete the transaction.
Tickets in hand, we head down to the platform the "B" line of the RER. The RER is Paris' commuter railroad. Not completely a subway but not a full-size train either. The train arrives and we squeeze on board. It is packed like a New York rush hour and it's a very tight fit.
Luckily, we are only going one stop but somewhere along the way, I do feel fingers in my back pocket. I try to turn around but there are too many people and we're packed too tight to see who it is. Fortunately for me, I keep my wallet in the front pocket. Unfortunately for my would be robber, I only had a used Kleenex in my back pocket…enjoy your loot mon frere!
At the Chatalet station, we transfer to the "A" line of the RER. This involves leaving the station to get to another lift. To leave the station, you have to talk via an intercom to get security to release the exit gate for you. The person that answers doesn't speak a word of English. We finally get the idea and buzz the intercom again and ask "Sortie, s'il vous plaît" (exit, please) and we get buzzed through.
We find the lift and take the RER "A" line two stops to Charles de Gaulle station where we plan on seeing the Arc 'd Triomphe but as we try to leave, we find the lift to the street is under repair with no alternate route available. Okay, so we scratch the Arc off the list and head back to Chatalet.
There, we transfer to the 14 line of the Paris Metro and go two stops to the Pyramides station. The lift out of the station puts us one block away from the Louvre. An hour and a half after arriving in Paris, this is our first view of the center of the city…we'd only seen it underground up until now.
The Musee du Louvre is an immense building that is three blocks long. We enter via the famous pyramid entrance where security takes us out of line and escorts us to the lift. The round lift descends and puts us in the ticket hall where long lines snake up to the many ticket counters spread around the room. An information station in the middle offers brochures designed in several languages that spell out access in the museum.
Another security guard takes us out of the ticket line and escorts us up to the ticket window. Kids under 18, disabled persons, and the unemployed are all entitled to free admission. Adults pay 7.5 Euros.
The museum is very crowded. It is like a holiday in summer at Disneyland. We take in some paintings and sculptures but it begins to dawn on us that we will not have time to see much here so we head over to the Italian masters wing to see the Mona Lisa. Again, there is a huge line spanning down the three block long Grand Gallery but it moves fast and when we get close to the room where it is displayed, security again takes us out of the line and escorts us right up to the front where we are invited to view the painting at our leisure.
It is a bit of a thrill to see such a famous painting but I must say, I don't get all the fuss. I know there's a lot of mystery behind the painting…is it actually a self-portrait? Da Vinci's mistress? What about that smile? Notice how the eyes follow you?…but to me, there are clearly more beautiful and compelling works of art in this building.
The crowds really wear down on Tim and we only have the day, so we take our leave of the Louvre and continue on. By the way, the bathrooms on the ticket hall level next to the lifts are the least crowded and accessible toilets here. They are also kept very clean. Probably because they are well hidden.
It's time to head across the Seine to the Left Bank and we wander along the narrow streets looking at the shops, bakeries, and restaurants. Being in Paris, we must splurge on a good French meal.
We end up at the Café Le Saint Germain where we sat at a small table on the sidewalk. It was too small to sit inside but the day was nice so it worked out well.
The waiter suggested a veal special which my wife ordered. Tim had a roast chicken dish with fries while I had a duck braised in its own fat with sautéed potatoes. One word…delicious! We shared the three plates. All were very good with the top marks going to the veal. The sautéed potatoes were like little puffy pillows with just enough garlic on them…the best garlic fries I've ever had (and I've had some of the best). A bottle of nice red Bordeaux helped to wash it down. My wife talked me out of staying for dessert. I really wanted to try the caramel crepes offered, but she wanted to find a little bakery to try.
A little walk later, we found our little bakery. It was good, but not spectacularly so. I shoulda held out for those crepes!
Finally, we come out from the buildings and into the park that houses the Eiffel Tower. So much has been said about it that I'll limit it to the fact that it is really beautiful and really big. Unfortunately, today's security concerns limit wheelchair users to the second level…about a third of the way up.
We find a wheelchair accessible bus that goes back to Notre Dame and we take the RER from there back to Gare du Nord and board the Eurostar for the trip back.
A couple of notes about Paris. We've all heard about the typical arrogant French person who looks with disdain down their nose at English speaking Americans. With one limited exception (one of the bartenders at the Eurostar boarding lounge), I found every French person I came across that day to be friendly, gracious, and as helpful as they could be. The stereotype could not be more wrong as far as I'm concerned.
This is not to say Paris is all it's made up to be. We were a bit disappointed by the crowds and general cleanliness and it just didn't register with us as such a magnificent city, but the people there were just fine.
Accessible transportation in Paris is much better than I thought it would be. Although there are few accessible RER and Metro stations, those few stations are located at key points. There are many, many wheelchair accessible buses here and maps at each stop. Look for the international wheelchair symbol next to the route number. Be forewarned, however, that the driver must close all doors before deploying the ramp. It may look like he's going to leave you in the lurch, but once those doors are closed, the ramp will come out, the doors will reopen, and you can then board. There are no tie-downs on Parisian (or London) buses.
Another train ride. Fortunately, we don't have to get up in the wee hours. We catch a taxi over to Paddington Station and board our train over to Bath…a quick 90 minute ride away on the 125 mph train.
A note about British trains and wheelchairs. You are required to book a reservation for your wheelchair at least 24 hours in advance or be at the mercy of station staff with help boarding the train. What you need to do is go to the ticket window of National Rail at any train station and buy your tickets more than 24 hours in advance. Then go to the Station Reception (every station has one, just ask where it is) and have them reserve space for you on every leg of your train journey.
I tell you this because it almost proved disastrous to us. We went to the Station Reception at Waterloo and the lady booked us to Bath but said we'd have to book passage back once we got there. On arrival at Bath, we were told since we didn't book passage back at least 24 hours in advance, we were screwed. I explained what happened and was told to try with the platform boss when we wanted to return. I was told I probably wouldn't get on the train with the wheelchair…luckily, the platform gentleman was more understanding and helped us with a ramp.
Okay, enough of our troubles…on to Bath!
On arrival, we pick up a town map in the station. The station is centrally located and we will not get farther that five or six blocks away the entire day. First order of business is to get lunch. I had wanted to go to the Pump Room located at the Roman Bath but it would be a good 90 minutes before we could get fed there, so we wandered around to see what else we could find.
On the back side of the bath, in a small lane, we found a hole-in-the-wall called Café du Globe which had a two-course lunch special for £7.00. For me, it was a delicious tomato herb soup followed by panzarotti filled with ham and spinach and covered with a delicious tomato and melted cheese sauce. Tim had bacon and cheese jacket potatoes (potato skins) with a lasagna and my wife had a salad with salmon. All were very delicious and the price was reasonable. Plus, the wheelchair fit inside and the table was big enough for all of us.
After lunch we head over to the Roman Bath. The Romans discovered this hot spring in 43 A.D. and built a public bath. In the 19th century, the ruins were unearthed and the bath restored. The public can no longer swim in it (a modern facility where you can has opened across the street) but you can still visit the ruins, which are 20 feet below the level of the ground.
The bath itself is pretty remarkable and the tour very interesting. Afterward, we decide to explore the town.
Bath is a beautiful town with many nooks, corners, and alleys full of interesting shops, pubs, and places to eat. We pick up many souvenirs here and walk along the river with its stunning views of Bath Abbey. Several shopping lanes remind us of Diagon Alley in Harry Potter with their narrow walkways and quaint storefronts. The local market offers many items such as packets of cheese and smoked bacon for 40 to 80 pence per package.
We end our day here with a plate of chips and a few ales at one of the local pubs. The train back is full so the conductor on board bumps us up to first class for the journey back.
This is our last full day here so we decide to clean up some loose ends close to the hotel so we don't wear ourselves out.
We start out by walking across Westminster Bridge and seeing the Cabinet War Rooms. This fascinating tour takes you underground to see the bunkers where Winston Churchill and his staff planned the fighting in World War II while hiding from the German bombs raining down on the city. A lift takes you down and an audio tour guides you through. It's a bit cramped and
claustrophobic but gives you a real good feel of what is must have been like to be hunkered down here.
Rooms on display include the map room (left just as it was the last day), Churchill's bedroom, communications room, staff quarters, and even the tiny kitchen and dining room. It's well worth the £7.00 admission (disabled and one carer free).
Directly across the street is St. James park, the flowered and beautiful front yard for the Queen's house. We start to stroll through the park and I open my guidebook to read about it. I notice that in 25 minutes, the changing of the guard will take place at the other end of the park , Buckingham Palace.
Stepping up the pace, we make it to the other end of the park just in time to squeeze in with the crowd to see the short parade of the guards and their band as they march over from their barracks to relieve their comrades at the palace.
Afterward, we walk back through the park towards Westminster Abbey. Along the way, we find Bruno's, a café in the St. James Park tube station, that serves delicious panini sandwiches and pasta. Their pasta carbonara is among the best I've had and a bargain at £4.
After lunch, we tour Westminster Abbey. Again, disabled plus one carer gets in gratis but inside very few of the side chapels are accessible. Still, you get a close up view of royal graves such as Edward II and Richard III. Charles Darwin is buried here along with Sir Isaac Newton. In poet's corner, Lord Byron rests with his colleagues. Nearby, a gentleman who lived over 150 years is buried.
The tombs can be very ornate or very simple. The abbey is very big inside and ornate. This is really a must see when you're here.
We head back across the Thames and take a quick bathroom break at the hotel. Across the street is the Imperial War Museum. There is a stunning and important - if very depressing - holocaust exhibit here. Wheelchair users can't help but gasp as the first exhibit explains how the Nazis started by exterminating physical undesirable such as the disabled before moving on to his final solution. Note: this exhibit is not suitable for small children or those easily nauseated.
Admission is free and the museum is completely accessible.
Wanting to stock up on some last minute souvenirs, we head to the nearby Elephant and Castle shopping center. This turns out to be a depressingly drab mall and we quickly head back where we have one more delicious pizza dinner at the Bar Room Bar pub.
Tomorrow, we have nothing more to do except pack and ride the tube back to Heathrow to await our eleven hour ride home.
Copyright 2004 - Darryl Musick